While the rest of us spent our reading breaks twittering around on beaches, ski hills, or perhaps drinking alone in our bathtubs, some University of Calgary students volunteered their time to help the community and learn about the social issues facing the city.
Both the Office of the Student Experience’s Project Serve, and the Students’ Union Alternative Spring Break aimed to involve students with community service organizations to develop the students’ awareness of and ability to confront issues like homelessness and poverty.
“One of the main objectives of Project Serve is to encourage lifelong citizenship and community engagement,” said OSE coordinator of student leadership programs Aryne Sheppard. “For me, it was really important for all the participants to know that regardless of their faculty and regardless of their future career, everyone has a role to play in finding solutions to social problems.”
Project Serve is an exchange program between the U of C and Guelph University in Ontario, where it was originally developed.
This year is the third the U of C has participated. Of the 20 student participants in Calgary, nine were U of C students with the remaining 11 from Guelph. On the other end, nine U of C students joined 16 from Guelph in Ontario. Each year the focus of the project changes based on important issues facing the community.
“Project Serve is community-driven, so we look at the serious issues facing the community,” said Sheppard. “This year homelessness has gotten so much media coverage it was a natural choice for this year’s project.”
Project Serve worked closely with McMan Youth Family and Community Services and ran Feb.18-22. The students participated in different activities including art projects and a drumming circle at Knox Church, a tour of Calgary Urban Projects Society–a community organization providing necessary services including healthcare and literacy programs for the homeless and low-income earners–and working with Inn From the Cold.
The week also included a panel discussion of U of C faculty and professionals which allowed students to hear multiple perspectives on homelessness.
The highlight of the week came Wed., Feb. 21, when students were led on a night tour of the downtown area arranged through the joint effort of Homeless Awareness Calgary and McMan. The two-hour tour was guided by five people who had been, or are currently homeless. During the tour, the guides shared their experiences of homelessness and the challenges they faced.
“What everybody took away was quite humbling,” said Sheppard. “[The student’s were] inspired by the strength of the guides who were still involved in helping other homeless individuals still taking care of one another,”
In the Guelph project students worked with the AIDS committee of Guelph and Wellington to learn about HIV/AIDS and to develop educational presentations for local schools.
The SU’s Alternative Spring Break is a similar program now in its 10th year and involved 10 U of C students and two SU coordinators.
“The reaction of the volunteers was positive,” said Alternative Spring Break coordinator Andrew Barry. “Alternative Spring Break events include a volunteer activity at a charitable agency and they also include a tour or presentation from the charitable agency.”
The students volunteered at and toured the Calgary Inter-Faith Food Bank, the Mustard Seed Street Ministry winter shelter, Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army Center of Hope and Booth Centre, and the YWCA Sheriff King Home.
“Alternative Spring Break provides a great opportunity to learn about a variety of social issues and agencies that deal with these social issues within a very short period of time,” said Barry.